Markham Roberts’ Notes on Decorating
As designer Markham Roberts explains in his inspiring new book, Notes on decoration, “There are thousands of moving parts that must fit together cohesively for a successful result.” In his first book he touched on the basics of design (although I would hardly classify anything in his interiors as basic) and now he showcases all the aspects that help make his work so memorable – from determining the client’s deepest desires to the practicality of challenges and solutions, the crucial addition of layers and the finishing touch of something unexpected.
It is all these considerations that make Markham rooms accompany you, not only for their beauty and comfort, but also for their extraordinary symbiosis between guest, place and originality. One of those projects has a chapter of its own – an amazing house on Nantucket that you might have seen when it was posted to Architectural Digest. The chapter, titled The Fates, is not only insightful but anecdotal and humorous (be sure to check out “Markham’s Travel Needs” in the introduction). Knowing Markham and having also met his “smart, funny and naughty” client here on Nantucket, I’m excited to be able to share more about this very special island, including never-before-seen photos and behind-the-scenes information!
Q: As you say in the introduction to your new book decorating is a complex business and process and I can’t think of anything more complex than decorating a big house from scratch on this often inaccessible little island. 30 miles from the sea. How many years and how many trips has this project involved?
MR: It was about a year and a half of work – fast track and I spent a lot of time there for the installation, which had to be done in phases, given all the different vendors and the amount of it. who was to come into the house. I remember the first time I visited the site when I got on board, and it was January of the year when there were waves of ice on the beach. I don’t think I’ve ever been colder than that day in a house that was an open-air construction site.
Q: Although your client gave you free rein to design everything, were you given any guidelines to at least start the process?
MR: I knew it had to be a home for both the client and her extended family. We had to make it comfortable for all, logical and practical for the different needs and we had to deal with the light and its seasonal change, because the house is used more than just for the summers. We have made summer covers and summer and winter curtains and pillows to give the home a different feel as the light changes as the days get shorter. It was very important to the client, but other than that she didn’t give much direction. I think she wanted to see what I was going to come up with for her, and luckily we have similar tastes, so we were able to work quickly.
Q: It seems to me that this project was an act of elaborate acrobatics – how do you balance a very particular sense of place like Nantucket with a larger design scheme and prevent what is essentially a beach house (even though it is? large) to become a formal decoration power play?
MR: With exceptional client art and extensive collections of antiques and decorative arts, I carefully chose more casual materials and patterns and tried to arrange the furniture in a more comfortable and less rigid – all this to take down any fancy that might easily set in when it comes to possessions like these. The client has a great sense of humor and loves her family and friends, and it was important to her to make the home welcoming.
Q: What was the key to bringing so many Nantucket-themed collections into the home (baskets, sailor’s Valentine’s Day, bird sculptures, etc.) without appearing too contrived or expected?
MR: Things like that are undeniably lovely, and the client had a lot of them, which I tried to use in different ways. For example, we had a number of complete sets of Nantucket stackable baskets, which fit together like Russian dolls. We chose to hang the two antique sets high up in the entrance hall on the walls as sculptural art, and to use the newly made sets around the house as plant pots and for flowers. The antique set is out of reach and therefore protected, and the newer ones are close at hand. We’ve also used Sailor’s Valentines – they’re hard to resist, but they live in the granddaughter’s room where they complement her pink and lavender scheme or have been used in bathrooms as they can’t. be damaged by moisture.
Q: I can’t even imagine how you started to sort and choose from your client’s huge collections. How did you start
MR: That was the challenge of this job, to assess and find a use for the many things the client has. We had to edit rooms and think about different ways to use things, to make them feel new to her and fit into this new home. Take the large collection of sculpted water birds; instead of displaying them on tables and shelves (which would have required us to give up books), we made special stands and hung them in groups on the walls in two areas, creating flock art and adding a different visual interest to these pieces.
Q: What has been the key to presenting these collections in an unpretentious way so that they charm rather than show off.
MR: I guess it was more of a holistic concept, rather than a conscious decision, that the client and I appreciate less formal things for a house like this. None of us naturally turn to fancy or precious fabrics and trims too. By making decisions like using the different designs of wood planks as an architectural backdrop in the many areas of the house, painted in crisp white, we put her things in the spotlight and showcased them on a simple background, or at least in appearance simple. If we had hung the important 18th century Indian watercolors of birds of prey and Julia Condon’s collection of colorful chakra paintings in the lobby, on fancy glazed plaster walls, it would have made a very different feel – one that I don’t think is so welcoming.
Q: What are the key elements that have helped you so successfully cross the line between highly sophisticated, bespoke design and understated styling?
MR: Take, for example, the wall covering in the dining room. I wanted to create the paneling effect with the direction of the ticking strips, and while it was an incredibly complicated and precise job to perfectly align each strip and work it with the architectural design, I wanted that. it is simple and not obvious. Using the mattress ticking helped to reduce any formal quality and make it appear less fussy and keep the palate in the room faded or subdued, it allowed the interesting pieces in the room to really shine.
Q: There is a strong tradition and history of craftsmanship on the island. How did you find so many people to work with locally?
MR: My client has been going to Nantucket for decades, and she already had a great affinity for local crafts, so I was happy to learn from her experience and connections. We worked with Hilary Anapole to weave custom rugs in the great loom tradition and there has never been a time that I have visited John Sylvia’s charming boutique at the bottom of Main Street and am not came back with something special.
Q: You’ve kept the entrance and halls clean and bright with Bob Christian’s white joinery and elegantly neutral painted floors. What was that thought?
MR: The bedroom is double storey with a gallery of the stair landing above. It has tall windows and has an interesting shape with the roof lines. We wanted to play with the wood planks in their directions on different parts of the crisp white walls, and place the walls against Bob Christian’s beautiful floor. Both treatments were done to visually highlight all the different rooms in the room – the old English refectory table, the Dutch mirror, Indian watercolors, antique Nantucket stackable baskets, painted and rush provincial seat benches, the work of Julia Condon and the Chinese export and delft blue and white. There’s a lot going on, so I wanted to balance that with the simplicity of the white walls.
Q: You are known for your brilliant use of colors and patterns, and this house in particular has a mix of both. Any advice on how to mix things up without having a dizzying effect?
MR: Put it together and see how it works. If it looks bad, throw it away and try something else. and keep in mind that things don’t necessarily have to match and probably shouldn’t. It’s fun to experiment with color and the play of patterns.
Q: While a blue and white color scheme might seem like an obvious choice for a Nantucket home, you’ve managed to temper any reference to it so that it feels appropriate but not overwhelming or obvious. Advices?
MR: I don’t really think of this house as blue and white, but when I look at it there are four rooms that basically have blue and white patterns. Again here, I never like things to match up, and I think you need to add some contrasts so things don’t get boring. One of the bedrooms has burnt orange and Pompeian red contrasts, another has all the greens, browns and golds of all the palissy items hanging on the walls, and the client’s bedroom has beautiful pinks, both soft and bright. to go with its paler blue and white scheme.
Working with a client like this who is funny and smart, loves to decorate, has great things and most of all who really wanted to let my creativity run wild was a great experience. I think the result is a house that suits him perfectly, and that is his success.
all photos are by Nelson Hancock
Thanks Markham – it’s always a pleasure to chat with you and hope to see you on the island soon!